Korea's First Female Ruler, Queen Seondeok of Silla

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Queen Seondeok (?-647, r. 632-647) was the 27th monarch of Silla, one of the kingdoms of the Three Kingdoms period. She was the first reigning female monarch in Korean history and the second in East Asian history. She was not only a politically strategic ruler, but also facilitated many cultural achievements.

The daughter of King Jinpyeong and Lady Maya, Seondeok, named Kim Deok-man at birth, displayed clever insightfulness from an early age. A story included in both the History of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk sagi) and Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk yusa) retells how when her father received peony seeds and a painting of the flower from the emperor of Tang China, Seondeok remarked how it was a shame such a beautiful flower did not have a scent before the seeds had even been planted. She had inferred this fact because the painting did not depict any butterflies, which are attracted to flowery scents. It was also during her time as a princess that she took up an interest in astronomy and had Cheomseongdae, the oldest extant astronomical observatory in the world, constructed. However, after being reprimanded by the Tang ambassador for her precociousness, her father suppressed her studies of the stars[1].

Seondeok took the throne as queen when her father died without a male heir. Although Silla preferred male heirs, more important than the sex of the heir was that they were of the “sacred bone” rank. “Sacred bone” refers to top rank of Silla’s “bone rank system,” a caste system which was determined by the heritage of ones’ parents. As there were no male sacred bone heirs left, Seondeok was chosen to succeed her father. This speaks to the comparatively high social status of women, who served as advisors and could have inheritances, as well as the importance of bone rank in Silla society.[2]

Seondeok ascended the throne during a period when Silla was under threat by Baekje and Goguryeo. However, despite attacks on Silla territory, Seondeok was able to successfully defend the kingdom with the aid of her cousin, Kim Yu-sin. She maintained good diplomatic relations with Tang China and sent many young scholars to study in there, which later proved advantageous during the 668 unification of the Three Kingdoms. She also ruled wisely and saw to the care of the people through the promotion of state Buddhism and the stabilization of popular sentiment. To promote Buddhism, she served as a patroness for the construction of multiple Buddhist temples, and also ordered the construction a nine-story wood pagoda at Hwangnyongsa Temple. The 80-meter tall pagoda was the tallest structure in the world at the time of its construction.

Despite her various cultural accomplishments and successful protection of the kingdom, members of Silla royalty, and even the Emperor of Tang, thought women were unfit to rule and questioned her abilities. In 647, Bidam, a royal from the lesser “true bone” rank, led a revolt under this justification. The revolt was quickly suppressed by Kim Yu-sin in just 10 days, but during this short time, Queen Seondeok died of a chronic disease.

Queen Seondeok’s 15-year reign was followed by that of another female, her cousin, Jindeok, the last monarch of “sacred bone” descent. One more queen would reign during Unified Silla.

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  1. Bernardi, Gabriella. 2016. The Unforgotten Sisters: Female Astronomers and Scientists before Caroline Herschel. Springer Praxis Books. p.39-41.
  2. Fact check needed for this paragraph.
  • Lee, Bae-yong. 2008. Women in Korean History. Ewha Womans University Press.